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Twilight of the do-gooders

Andrew Johnson

31st January 2005

While most of the discussion of the December talks collapse has focused on the two biggest parties, the DUP and Sinn Fein, this is not to say that smaller political forces are of no interest. The political decay of forces that once aspired to provide an alternative to sectarian politics is symptomatic of the outworkings of the Good Friday process. Make no mistake, Good Friday has not been kind to the denizens of the strange world of cross-community politics. The most obvious sign of this is the decline into almost total invisibility of the venerable old Alliance Party.

Alliance these days presents something of the aspect of an ancient, almost forgotten rock band – Foghat, perhaps, or Wishbone Ash – going on a final farewell tour. It is easy to forget that things used to be different. In the 1970s and 1980s, Alliance had a large constituency in the middle class. It had a coherent programme, of the liberal unionism shorn of bigotry that Terence O’Neill hinted at but never followed through on. And it had a definite material base as a political instrument of the Northern Ireland Office, just as the SDLP was an instrument of the Dublin government in the long and fruitless attempt to “consolidate the centre”.

Consolidating the centre was a nice idea, much beloved by the governments and commentariat. Unfortunately, it fell down on the question of the nature of the Northern state. The quest for cross-community politics necessarily turned on trying to identify a liberal wing of the Unionist Party and then encouraging it to be less sectarian. The problem is that, since partition at least, non-sectarian unionism has been a pipe dream. The Northern state is a Bantustan based entirely around a periodic sectarian headcount expressing one community’s ascendancy over the other.

The result was that, although Alliance always said – and most of them genuinely meant it – that they wanted to transcend the sectarian divide, the material reality of the situation has forced them into supporting any initiative of the British that could plausibly claim to be cross-community. The apotheosis of this is the Good Friday process, a process based on institutionalised sectarian corruption and therefore giving an edge to whatever party can shout loudest for sectarian advantage. Alliance are therefore locked into supporting a process that goes against everything they claim to believe in, while quibbling over details like voting procedures in Stormont.

What we have with Alliance is a party that to all intents and purposes has given up the ghost. If they still get some councillors and MLAs elected, it is not because the electorate buys into a grand vision of liberalism but because the individuals concerned are recognised as decent and hard-working public representatives. Many young members of Alliance – and they do still exist – are card-carrying Lib Dems, which is a fair statement of their politics. The overwhelming impression is of people who wish they were somewhere else.

And, speaking of do-gooders who wish they were somewhere else, let’s take a look at the far left. The small left groupings are much less significant than Alliance in real life, but they have some interest as they aspire to provide the working class with analysis and leadership. However, the links with liberalism are stronger than may at first be apparent.

Joe Higgins minces his words

This is most obvious in the case of the Socialist Party. Except that they say “workers” rather than “people”, SP statements are often difficult to tell apart from Alliance ones. The SP and its predecessor organisations have always laid tremendous stress on the need to appeal to loyalist workers, to the point where loyalists actually have a veto on political discourse. The SP believe you can only be socialist by appealing to “both sides”, and any demand or position that might conceivably annoy loyalists is as a matter of course denounced by them as “left republican”. Incredibly, they have even used this description to refer to Eamonn McCann’s Socialist Environmental Alliance, whose programme is neither left nor republican.

The SP stands as the purest expression of economism, of the belief that if only annoyances like the national question would just go away, then workers would unite around bread-and-butter issues. In fact they have constructed an entire worldview where workers are always spontaneously coming together, only for bourgeois sectarian politicians to trick them into fighting each other. Anything that contradicts their group consciousness is routinely either denied or explained away with breathtaking dishonesty – see their claims that discrimination no longer exists in any serious form, or that Holy Cross was the fault of Sinn Fein agitators. (SP pamphlet, Towards Division Not Peace)

It is no surprise, then, that when the Good Friday agreement was signed in 1998, the SP came out with all guns blazing in support. Joe Higgins appeared on BBCNI to call for a Yes vote in the referendum, arguing that a defeat of the agreement was what the “extremists on both sides” wanted. In the ensuing Stormont election, SP candidates appeared on the ballot paper as “Pro-Agreement Socialist”. They argued that the main problem with the agreement was that it wasn’t socialist, a splendid abstraction that does nothing to offer an alternative. More recently, the SP has been calling not only for the restoration of Stormont, but for this sectarian toy parliament to be given extra powers, on the grounds that a future SP-dominated assembly (not an immediate prospect) could then legislate for Socialism in Six Counties.

The political incoherence this leads to can be seen in Joe Higgins’ statement on the talks collapse. Joe argues that “The peace process is a shambles and might be characterised as degenerating rapidly into farce were it not so tragic.” (Dail Debates, 15 December 2004) One has observed a distinct lack of Northern workers, as opposed to trade union bureaucrats, wailing and gnashing their teeth that Stormont isn’t coming back soon. Joe then has a flash of lucidity and tells us, “The process will experience ongoing crisis because it is based entirely on the fallacy that one can base the solution to deep-seated national, social, political and economic questions on the institutionalisation of sectarianism.” Quite so, a little verbose but basically correct. And predictably, Joe has nothing more to add except to wave his arms about and tell us, at great length, that the answer is socialism. Nor is it clear how Joe’s criticisms of the process have been vindicated when he has been supporting the process all along.

What we see here is the forlorn hope that imperialism can sort out some kind of settlement in the North, so that workers won’t be distracted by trivialities like sectarianism or discrimination and can get on with real politics, which the SP interprets to mean trade unionism. This hope is likely to be disappointed for the foreseeable future.

SWP: After Paisley, us!

This gibberish, however, starts to look positively sensible when compared with the recent pronouncements of the Socialist Workers Party. Consider this gem: “DUP and Sinn Fein in government? Now let the class war commence!” (Socialist Worker, 27 November 2004) One is reminded of nothing so much as the German Communist Party in 1933 declaring “After Hitler, us!” But this is the farce rather than the tragedy.

The rationale for this extraordinary position is roughly as follows: The working class wants a return to devolution in the hope of avoiding privatisation and water charges. Put Sinn Fein and the DUP in government, where they will implement water charges and privatisation, and they will stand exposed before their working class constituents. These workers will then lose faith in their traditional representatives and start casting around for an alternative, which the SWP believes to be itself.

This is wrong on so many levels that it’s hard to know where to start. In the first place, both of these parties have already been in government. Sinn Fein ministers privatised like there was no tomorrow, but did their working class voters in Belfast or Derry turn against them? No, in fact the SF vote continued to skyrocket. And the reason for this is the structure of the sectarian state, something completely ignored by the SW article. The SWP completely fail to recognise that people do not vote DUP or Sinn Fein because of where they might stand on a left-right spectrum. In a sectarian state, the bulk of voters will support whatever representatives are most aggressive in fighting for “their” community. The GFA only reinforces this tendency. Far from a DUP-SF government providing the best conditions for class struggle, it would only heighten sectarian tensions to fever pitch.

The most interesting point is that in 1998 the SWP had a more or less correct position on the GFA, urging rejection on the grounds that the agreement institutionalised sectarianism and did not resolve communal tensions but only stored them up for the future: “The British and Irish government proposals are built on the idea that there are two competing communities. Instead of eradicating sectarianism, they only want to modernise and adapt it to new purposes.” (Socialist Worker, 21 March 1998) But shortly after the agreement was put into effect the SWP quietly moved to an agnostic position, presumably on the grounds that opposing Good Friday was unpopular with their periphery. Over the last few years the organisation has evolved to a position almost indistinguishable in practice from that of the SP, minus the SP’s frantically unionist tone. And now it has come out with an openly pro-imperialist position of calling for Paisley to power. It is to be hoped that the SWP comrades will reconsider their position.

The spectacle is depressing. Those who should be trying to come up with alternatives to the Good Friday debacle accept its limitations and seek only to finesse some of the details. The majority of socialists are in no sense to the left of the liberals on this. Most of those on the left define workers unity not in political but trade union terms, and restricted to the Northern state at that. There is no discussion of the task of dismantling the sectarian Northern state or the confessional Southern state. The political defeat of reactionary unionism is off the agenda.

Despite the boundlessly optimistic tone of the far left groups, this betrays a deep pessimism and lack of confidence in their own politics. These comrades, who subjectively have the right instincts and really want to fight for a better society, find themselves accepting the parameters imperialism has laid down for the conduct of politics here. People who got into politics to change the world are reduced to hoping that they might scrape one or two council seats in May. Really, the left can do better than this. The working class certainly deserves better.


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